In these hard times it is tempting to look back on the entire decade in negative terms, especially in light of a difficult job market and the financial challenges that being an adjunct professor entails. That might indeed be the way I remember these times, but today I would rather frame the decade with politics and end on an optimistic note.

The decade began well with a nice celebration in Freiburg i.Br., where I was doing my dissertation research. But then I returned to a country that soon made George W. Bush its president. Just how fateful that election was, we did not know until after the attack on September 11, 2001. Here is an email I wrote the next day. Unfortunately, it turned out that I was right to be worried about “the impact that this violence [would] have on our own humanity.” The Bush administration invaded a country that had nothing to do with the September 11th attack. And it chose to use torture. The basic outlines of the story are well known, although historians will soon need to teach it. After all, our current crop of freshmen was only about ten years old at the time of the attack, and time shows no signs of slowing down.

Given these sentiments, my experience of President Obama’s inauguration at the beginning of this year should come as no surprise. I am republishing it here, nonetheless, because I have closed my personal blog, where I first posted it. I knew things in this country would not change overnight, so I am not disillusioned by the rancor in American politics this past year. But I am also struck by how long ago the feelings in this piece were. As we move forward into a new decade and better times, I would like to recapture the note of sober hope that I felt on January 20th.

Happy New Year!

Two of Two Million

January 20, 2009

On Sunday, January 18th, we attempted to see the concert at Lincoln Memorial. We took a bus down Wisconsin Avenue and got off at Foggy Bottom. Walking towards the memorial, we soon joined a mass of humanity heading in the same direction.

There was good will and a sense of expectation in the air. Unfortunately, there was also only one hour till the concert’s begin, and we had badly underestimated the time it would take to get through security. Exacerbating the situation were people cutting the lines, sometimes willfully, sometimes because the architecture of the lines was confusing.

We decided to give up at 2:00, when the concert was supposed to begin. We could chock it up to experience and be better prepared on Tuesday. Besides, just seeing the expectant crowds was a good thing. We also decided to walk to Memorial Bridge via Washington Monument, thinking we could at least see the crowds—and maybe hear some sounds—across the water. It turned out, however, that there were JumboTrons and loudspeakers at Washington Monument, no security checkpoints to go through, and the concert had not yet begun. We got within one or two hundred yards of a JumboTron and saw the whole thing from within a growing sea of humanity that reached as far back as the eye could see. The monument is on a hill, which means the crowd from my vantage point looked endless, since my view at the scene behind us reached only the monument, dropping off like the ocean does on the horizon at sea.

I choked up while singing the national anthem at the beginning. Catharsis. Healing after eight years of a leader who encouraged us to follow our worst instincts. The sense of joy and anticipation around me was palpable. We sang and we danced. Catharsis. Having the eighty-nine-year-old Pete Seeger there at the end made it that much sweeter—so did the whole choreography of the show, which brought not only different ethnicities on stage together, but also generations and genres. Garth Brooks’ singing “Shout!” was fine example of this tendency.

Afterwards we walked half of the way or more back home, though we found room in a bus for part of the trip. We talked with other passengers as if we all knew each other, which happens in DC, but seldom this easily.

That evening, my wife convinced me to volunteer for service the next day as Obama had been encouraging citizens to do, but my earlier hesitation meant all organized activities were already booked. So instead we signed up for a pledge drive next month for our local public radio station, which I had been planning to do anyway. And I reminded my wife of her other volunteering. She’s always been much better than me at stepping up when help is needed.

So Monday was a day at home. Sure, there were special events for the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, but the next day would take a lot of energy and planning.

Told we had to choose between inauguration and the parade, and told the parade had security checkpoints, but a spot on the Mall for inauguration didn’t, the choice was easy. Moreover, being there was more important than having a chance to see Obama in the parade. What better way to bear witness than with two million people?

The decision to brave the crowds was easier, because we live in Glover Park, which is close enough to make it possible to avoid packed Metro stations.
This morning we took a bus to Dupont Circle and walked to Washington Monument. We left the apartment at 8:00 and had a spot with a view of a JumboTron by 9:00. They rebroadcast the concert to distract us, and they showed us the arriving guests. The wait passed by pretty quickly this way.

Our long-johns and other layers kept us reasonably comfortable. So did a folded yoga mat (for both sitting and standing on) and snacks and tea. The more crowded it got, the less the wind bit into us, though the breeze never completely went away on that small hill.

The mood reminded me of the Sunday concert, except we got past the anticipation to the main event. At times it felt like at a church, as some neighbors from Newport News responded to parts of the president’s speech with a rhythmic refrain of “Okay,” as if in a conversation with him. An “Amen” even slipped from my lips a couple times, including at the part where Obama denounced the false choice between security and our values. I was doubly impressed then when that Obama line drew a lot of extra cheers and applause where we were standing.

There will be more to ponder in the coming days and weeks. Right now I am exhausted from the cold and windy, but beautiful walk back from Washington Monument across to Lincoln Memorial, along the Potomac to Georgetown, and up Wisconsin Avenue to Glover Park. (Were we ever stiff after a short bathroom break at Barnes & Noble in Georgetown and then coffee at a small cafe on Wisconsin Avenue!)

Tired, beat, exhausted—the good kind.

Earlier this month I did a post on my Hist 100 blog that might be of some interest to readers here, “Contemporary Politics and History.” My audience was primarily freshmen in their first semester at university, most of them too young to have voted in the last election.

I have said this in class, but it needs repeating here: Our contemporary American political discourse about socialism and nazism has absolutely nothing to do with those terms and phenomena in actual history. While we are not in class to talk about American politics, I want to point out how language and history are being abused for political purposes. I am not doing this to undermine the stances of politicians who use hyperbole to make their points. There are perfectly good ideological and policy reasons that one can bring to either side of the health care debate, the energy policy debate, environmental policy debates, and so on. But none of these reasons has anything to do with Hitler, nazism, communism, or socialism—not if we are being honest, and as long as we are willing to see the slippery slope argument for what it is, a logical fallacy.

This abuse of history used to just offend me as a citizen who knew something about history, but addressing the abuse became part of my teaching job this summer when I had a student try to explain Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” That is when I realized that not only was history being abused for political purposes, but our contemporary political discourse was getting in the way of students understanding the past. That’s why I wrote a blog post on my own history blog sarcastically entitled, “What Having a Socialist Nazi in the White House Means for the Classroom.”

I could follow the logic of the student who described Hitler in terms of “socialism” and “big government,” if I were willing to understand the past in terms of this country’s contemporary self-image, but I am not. We need to take the past on its own terms and try to understand it in some detail before we attempt easy analogies. In other words, my concern relates to historical thinking, that is, that thing I began teaching you with the reading assignments from August 31st, including Gerald Schlabach’s “A Sense of History.”

I am probably not alone when I say that I have a hard time taking GOP “socialism” rhetoric seriously. The same goes for right-wing attempts to equate Obama with Hitler. Apparently, however, I need to keep this rhetoric in mind when planning my classes, for it has entered my classroom in an unexpected way. In a blue book essay about totalitarianism this summer, one student explained nazism in terms of “socialism” and “big government.” There was no political intent behind these statements. The student simply drew on the language of everyday life, as students are wont to do.

This is a sad commentary on what rhetorical excess on the right is doing to our everyday vocabulary, but it also presents an opportunity. Without engaging in politicking, I can use this apparent linguistic and cultural deficit not only as motivation to be more thorough about how I teach socialism, nazism, and other modern political ideologies and systems, but also as an example for historical thinking. My instinct here is to talk about the use and abuse of history, which is probably what I will do. On the other hand, however, some of those who throw around the “s” word really believe that socialism is on the march in the United States. If I were to take such fears seriously, I would also use them to teach my students about how the meaning of language shifts and even mutates over time, sometimes meaning different things to different groups of people. This too would be a worthwhile lesson, although it would bring me closer to something that some students might perceive as politicking. I should probably take that chance.

I am disappointed by the news Tom Ricks shares in “Fiasco at the Army War College.” In it he asks, “Did faculty members at the Army War College curtail their criticism of the Iraq war for fear of institutional retaliation?” In fact, they did more, even blackballing Ricks. I’m almost surprised, because I think highly of that institution, but I also recall how little respect the Bush administration has shown for professionalism in so many areas of government.

Thirteen more days.

Three and a half years ago, Gordon Bigelow published a prescient article in Harper’s Magazine about the limitations of extreme free market ideology called “Let there be markets: The evangelical roots of economics.” In it he points to the differences between Adam Smith’s understanding of moral behavior and the common wisdom about the market in our own times. He shows the crucial contribution that British evangelical authors made to this free market ideology in the early decades of the nineteenth century, and he points to the clear failure of their thought and policies during the Irish famine. These links might not be new for historians specializing in this subject matter; however, they provide food for thought for the rest of us. Besides reminding us to question the social, cultural, and political assumptions of economic theory, Bigelow’s piece offers a good example of how history can engage the public on important issues in forums outside the narrow confines of the academy.

[Hat tip for this reference: Cooper, who blogs about Darfur.]

Sometimes history just leaps off the pages and proclaims its relevance for our own times. On December 24, 1894, The Times of London published a long editorial about the first trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus for alleged treason.

We must point out that, the more odious and unpopular a crime is, the more necessary is it that its proof and its punishment should be surrounded by all the safeguards of public justice. Of these, the most indispensable is publicity. . . . It may be important for the French people to preserve the secrets of their War Department, but it is of infinitely greater importance for them to guard their public justice against even the suspicion of unfairness or of subjection to the gusts of popular opinion.

The Times correspondent wrote these words when there was still little doubt of Dreyfus’ guilt in the public at large. There were no Drefusards yet, that is, members of a movement to see the wrongfully convicted man exonerated. It was three years before Emile Zola wrote “J’accuse.” The point wasn’t about guilt or innocence. It was about the rule of law, which meant due process out in the open even for grave matters of national security. The later establishment of Dreyfus’ innocence reminded observers why.

Tomorrow my class is discussing Michael Burns, France and the Dreyfus Affair: A Documentary History (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999). Burns tells this dramatic tale with his own gripping prose interspersed with documents from the period. And he extends the tale as far as 1998, in order to help readers understand the affair’s legacy. For those with more time on their hands I also recommend Jean Denis Bredin, The Affair: The Case of Alfred Dreyfus, trans. Jeffrey Mehlman (New York: George Braziller, 1986), a big history book that reads like a good political thriller.

I can’t decide whether the White House is deliberately insulting our intelligence with Bush’s recent appeasement accusations or if they really don’t know anything about Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement. Chamberlain isn’t criticized in history for talking to Hitler, but rather for giving away the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and with it that country’s means to defend itself against Germany. The difference is not trivial. And what does McCain’s echoing of Bush’s remarks tell us about him? Did he also not learn this bit of history? Or is this just politics? Be that as it may, Kevin Levin is right about this being a teachable moment. The “Hardball” video he posted on his blog is hilarious and sad at the same time.

I am migrating posts from my former teaching blog, History Survey, to my personal wiki; however, I think the following post from 7/10/2007 would be more at home on this blog, not least because I want people still to be able to comment on it.

Do partisan politics have a place in the classroom? No. On the other hand, in a history class it is hard, even impossible to discuss many subjects without politics forming a subtext of the conversation. This difficulty is especially inherent in modern history. How, for example, can we talk about state-building, gender roles, participatory politics, and political ideologies without entering terrain in which we have a personal stake? And once we do that, how do we keep out partisan politics?

The trick is to make that difficult mental leap into the past and try to understand it from the point of view of people who lived in that time. We do not need to take sides with our ideological forefathers, and we do not need to attack their opponents. Nor do we need to respond to problems in the past with solutions from the present. Instead we need to try to think historically. We need to try to understand people in the past in their historical contexts. Making that leap is difficult, but possible.

Ironically, good civic practices are one potential side-effect of cultivating such historical sensibilities. If we can learn to imagine how people thought in the past, maybe we can imagine how our political opponents think in the present. Once we reach that point, a genuine dialog might be possible. The problems might be just as inextricable, but we might learn how to talk with each other instead of at each other. In other words, when we study history, it is possible to acquire the communicative habits necessary for a healthy civic culture. partisan politics do not belong in the classroom, but the classroom might have some lessons for partisan politics.

And here are the comments I received last summer:

anonymous said…
I agree that within the context of history classes, partisan politics- especially today’s partisan politics- should not be a part of the curriculum, but more because of their lack of relevance than anything else. I don’t think debating political issues should be banned entirely from the classroom. If it is relevant to the coursework and readings, a debate on political issues could be an excellent teaching tool. Assignments requiring students to research, debate, or write about a view on an issue they don’t agree with, or a historically volatile issue could also be highly beneficial.
July 31, 2007 7:20 PM

rockstories said…
What you suggest seems an excellent instructional technique and a lofty goal, but what of courses addressing more current issues? Assuming that many students (and, in fact, many professors) may not have put in the groundwork you suggest to come to that point of being able to stand in the shoes of “the other side”, how does the political science professor or contemporary moral issues instructor walk that line?
July 31, 2007 10:28 PM

tom k. said…
I think history is made up of partisan politics and that the debate between opposing sides is what pushes the historical “story” along. The article mentions understanding people in the past in their historical contexts: I can think of no better way to do so than in attempting to defend or attack their actions, as to be successful in either requires research and thought that often results in a new level of insight into what motivated these people. The trick then becomes stepping away from these arguments with only the insight gained, leaving behind any acquired biases.
August 1, 2007 12:51 AM

compassioninpolitics said…
I think that students learning to deal with issues of conflict in the society. It also helps them to deal with comparing instances where there are competeing interpretations of the truth. I worry that not talking about issues of partisanship in the classroom reifies the bubble mentality in the classroom. For instance a debate about bombing Japan, Korematsu, or a roleplaying debate about Russian politics–with teams of students taking on the role of each of the 5-6 perspectives can be very vital to the classroom experience.
August 3, 2007 10:11 PM

rockstories said…
But, Compassion, what you describe is the very opposite of “partisan politics in the classroom”–it’s an exercise in examing both sides of an issue from diverse perspectives. The very best of my political science professors in college encouraged (perhaps even forced) that kind of thinking; the worst tended to present their own assessments and conclusions as fact.
August 4, 2007 9:55 AM

See also Historians and Politics on this blog. What do you think?

Yesterday I wrote about the present in this blog about my work with the past. What possible justification could I have for doing that? (I mean besides the obvious point that this is my blog.)

I wrote about outsourcing military functions in Iraq not because I possess special knowledge of the subject, but because my expertise in history makes me frame the issue in ways that are different from what I find in the media. I do not possess any special insight into what we should do about the Iraq War now, but I know that there are some issues from past wars that I am not seeing raised today. Historians are on solid epistemological ground when they raise such issues.

On the other hand, I find the American Historical Association’s official condemnation of the war last year problematic. An organization of historians has no business claiming expertise in making war and peace. Instead I wish it would devote more attention to the study of war and society in the past. Then its individual members could participate in the framing of debates about war and peace in our own times, if they so desire.


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